WASHINGTON – Their relationship seemed doomed from the start. It was mostly a long-distance affair conducted in public exchanges, tempered by occasional awkward gestures of warmth but more often singed by open hostility. It most likely ended, mercifully, Thursday over white turkey chili and Southwestern grilled chicken salad.
President Barack Obama and the vanquished Mitt Romney ate lunch in a private dining room steps from the Oval Office, the seat of power they battled over for months, some might say years.
The meeting, a decades-old tradition between former rivals, put a bow on an otherwise ugly race marked by very few attempts to pretend the candidates liked each other. Until Thursday, that is, when a smiling Romney stopped by the White House. He left a little more than an hour later.
The lunch date was, perhaps not surprisingly, the winner’s idea. Obama announced his intentions in his victory speech, aiming to demonstrate bipartisan inclinations with the overture.
But the president, who never expressed respect for Romney’s political skills during the campaign, seemed to have trouble describing the purpose. Unlike some defeated candidates, Romney doesn’t hold public office and doesn’t represent a powerful constituency.
Obama suggested the former Massachusetts governor and business executive, who ran the 2002 Olympics, could act as some sort of efficiency consultant. “I do think he did a terrific job running the Olympics,” Obama said. “And that skill set of trying to figure out how do we make something work better applies to the federal government.”
The president, who once talked about building a “team of rivals” in his Cabinet, was not entertaining a Romney appointment, his spokesman later confirmed.
The White House offered only the broadest description of their conversation: “The focus of their discussion was on America’s leadership in the world and the importance of maintaining that leadership position in the future.” The meeting ended with a vague promise “to stay in touch.”
Unlike past post-campaign meetings, this one did not include a media photo op. The visual then, instead of unity or comity, was of a winner and a loser. Photographers snapped photos of Romney entering the White House from a side entrance.
The White House later released its own photo: the men exchanging a handshake in the Oval Office.
Romney was prompt – but not too eager – arriving in an SUV at 12:29 p.m. EST for the 12:30 date. He showed no outward signs of a man who had been stripped of his dream and his day job. With his dark suit, impeccable hair and grin, he still looked every bit the part he did not get.
Meeting with the man who crushed your hopes is a peculiar – some might say cruel – bit of American political theater. Still it’s become a post-campaign tradition.
It began when then-Sen. John F. Kennedy met with Richard Nixon in Key Biscayne, Fla., after the razor-thin 1960 race, said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley. “As a healing powwow, it played so well because it spoke of bipartisanship,” Brinkley said.
Obama met with Sen. John McCain in Chicago in 2008. They posed for photos sitting side by side in overstuffed chairs, making awkward chit-chat. McCain looked tense; Obama, cool and relaxed.
Vice President Al Gore flew back from St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, where he had been recuperating from his bruising defeat in 2000, for his meeting with Bush. He came out of the vice president’s residence to welcome Bush with an awkward back pat. They met for less than 20 minutes.
Perhaps the strangest rendezvous was between then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and another defeated Massachusetts governor. After Bush and Michael Dukakis walked out to a microphone in the White House driveway, Bush told reporters he was “very grateful to him for the spirit of this visit” and then left Dukakis in the driveway with reporters.
The Democrat criticized Bush’s economic policies. “The chickens are coming home to roost,” Dukakis said.
Romney made no public comments on Thursday. Neither did Obama.
The public may have to wait a while before it finds out what was said.
“That comes out in somebody’s memoir,” Brinkley said.
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PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): OBAMA-ROMNEY